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Do you have your facts right about cervical cancer

When it comes to cancer awareness, we all know that the pink ribbon stands for breast cancer awareness, but do you know what the teal coloured ribbon is dedicated to? It is Cervical Cancer. Almost one third of global deaths due to cervical cancer occur in India, accounting for 16.5% of the total cancer cases in our country, affecting women between the ages of 35-45 years. Sadly this preventable disease is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in Indian women.

If unusual bleeding in between periods, pain during intercourse, or increased foul-smelling vaginal discharge with unexplained back pain, is something that you have been ignoring, it is time to get yourself a screening test.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer occurring in the cervix, a part that connects the vagina to the lower part of the uterus. It is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is transmitted through sexual contact.

The good news is that there is a vaccine that can be taken up to the age of 26 but best administered between 9 to 13 years of age or before females become sexually active. Although this vaccine offers around 70% protection, it is not 100% protective and screening for cervical cancer should continue irrespective of whether vaccine has been taken.

Who is at a higher risk?

  • Having multiple sexual partners.
  • Women whose partner (s) has had more than one sexual partner
  • Smoking
  • Weak immune system. (women with HIV or post-transplant on immunosuppressive medication, prolonged steroid use)
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STD)

When must you inform your doctor?

  • Any bleeding, especially post- menopausal
  • Recurrent bleeding after sexual intercourse.
  • Inter-menstrual bleeding

Let us bust the ten most common myths about cervical cancer

#1 I don't have any symptoms so I don't need to get screened

Fact: Abnormal cells can be detected in a screening test before the onset of symptoms and you shouldn't wait till you start showing symptoms.

#2 I will never be able to prevent cervical cancer

Fact: Cervical cancer can be definitely prevented with regular screening tests

#3 Cervical cancer does not run in my family so I don't need to get tested

Fact: HPV (Human papillomavirus) which causes most cervical cancers spreads through skin contact during sexual intercourse with someone who already has the virus. It is not hereditary, but screening can result in early detection and effective curable treatments.

#4 You will develop cervical cancer if you have HPV

Fact: Not all HPV strains are responsible for causing cervical cancer. Some strains cause genital warts and only a few are responsible for cervical cancer.

#5 My mom had it and I will get it for sure

Fact: It is generally not hereditary and you can save yourself by regular screening to detect precancerous lesions.

#6 I can never have a baby because I have cervical cancer

Fact: Modern reproductive technologies can be used to freeze eggs that would otherwise be damaged during chemotherapy and radiation therapy in patients with cervical cancer. The ovaries can be moved surgically to prevent any harm from radiation.

#7 To be safe I need a pap test every year

Fact: Normal results for pap and HPV tests indicate that you don't need a test every single year. The frequency of these tests for cervical cancer depends on your age and previously normal test results.

Ages 21-29 (3 years after onset of sexual activity): Pap test once every 3 years.

Ages 30-64: HPV and pap test once every 3 years.

Ages 65 upwards: Your doctor will decide the frequency of the test

#8 My partner and I use condoms so there is no chance of getting HPV

Fact: HPV can inhabit areas that the condom does not cover, hence condoms can only protect you against most STDs and not necessarily from HPV.

#9 I'm a young woman and I've heard that only older women get cervical cancer

Fact: Cervical cancer can affect women of any age group, and getting tested every 3 years is best for you, after all, prevention is better than cure!

#10 I'm safe from HPV because I have only one partner

Fact: Any woman who has been sexually active in her life is at a risk for being exposed to HPV, even if it has been with one partner.

It is most important to get yourself screened regularly for cervical cancer. This can detect precancerous stage of cancer or carcinoma in situ. Treatment at this stage can result in complete cure.  

Dr. Uma Dangi

Medical Oncologist

Fortis Hospital Kalyan, Mumbai

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